Sunday, 18 January 2009

Knockout Fiction: Adiga's White Tiger

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008), which recently won the ManBooker prize, is a novel straight from India's gutters. Its most powerful episodes smell of shit. People have important political conversation while defecating together in a row in the slums of Delhi. And the dialogues work.

I picked up The White Tiger for academic reasons. I'm trying to write something about the materiaist/realist turn in Indian postcolonial fiction (in English). I heard about Adiga's victory in the ManBooker competition in the autumn; however, I was suspicious of any Indian piece of writing with the word "tiger" in the title. There are many such titles in my shelf already. Enough of Asian tigers.

The protagonist, The White Tiger of Bangalore, is an entrepreneur with a shady past. He begins telling his story in correspondence with His Excellency Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who is soon visiting his city. The narrative strategy is one of the innovative points in this novel: gradually, the White Tiger becomes less formal and more chummy with his addressee, engaging in direct man-to-man talk.

I enjoyed most Adiga's way to pick and mix advertisements, political slogans and other "found" items. This is not new in postcolonial writing, but not everyone knows how to do it grippingly. Adiga surely does. The most ironic borrowing is the price list from "Jackpot" English liquor shop, with separate columns for first, second and third rate whiskies (and in small print: ask for cheaper varieties at the counter). The servants often pick up the alcohol for their masters from such shops. They might learn to drink the third rate or below themselves, while carrying the first rate status symbol bottles.

The White Tiger goes through his academy of entrepreneurship while working as a driver for a returned migrant businessman and his wife, Pinkie, who is betrayed by her husband by his promises to return to the US. The couple divorces, after which the husband starts living a wild bachelor life. The White Tiger is disgusted by the boss's behaviour, observing his ways from a viewpoint of moral superiority. Most of the working days are spent waiting in front of the Parliament and luxury hotels, while Mr. Ashok Sharma delivers bribes to the politicians.

From the outset, I thought the whole story might be too crudely realist to be enjoyable. But the novel turned out to be politically informative and funny at the same time. As a reader, I enjoyed hanging out with the White Tiger and his streetwise driver colleagues outside the fancy hotels of Delhi, spitting paan on the pavements, rather than knowing what exactly happened inside the walls of the Sheraton. The upper caste, upper middle class characters are made somehow redundant, Adiga tells about them just enough. No more is necessary.

If I were to give one keyword or key concept to describe The White Tiger, it would be complicity. To tell the story solely from the servant's point of view is a knock-out strategy, because very rarely do we find university-educated authors writing in English with the imagination to cross the caste-and-class divide. The servant is fully complicit in the master's plans, desiring his lifestyle and at the same time feeling superior, every day boiling up with more rage.

This is a very plain novel with nothing frilly, nothing decorative or "extra" in it. For instance, Indian village life (named as The Darkness) is not portrayed to reveal the foreign reader its richness, but Adiga mainly discusses the corruption of the schoolmasters and doctors. Boys never get the school uniforms they are being sent in aid packages; there are several hospital grounding stones in a single village but none of them materialized.

Adiga uses the metaphor of egg shells when portraying the lives of the rich, protected in their SUVs. The eggs are cracked for short moments, then sealed again. The Westernised élites like to listen to European pop to calm down their nerves in the worst traffic jams. I can never listen to Enya or Sting with a straight face after reading The White Tiger. Not that I'd be missing out on much upon such musical erasure.


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